The question of how we accommodate refugees and people seeking asylum here has forced itself to the forefront of national debate over the past 18 months. These extraordinary times have crystallised the existing frailty of our international protection accommodation system, better known as direct provision. But the State’s response to this current crisis may also contain the seeds of another one.
It is a fact that the State is, to date, housing over 84,000 refugees and asylum seekers in State-provided accommodation. As a proportion of our population, the number of Ukrainian refugees in Ireland is in line with other EU countries such as Germany, and is far less than Poland or Czechia, countries closer to the conflict. The global increase in people seeking international protection has also impacted Ireland but, as Emily Cunniffe and Kiere Murphy of the ESRI pointed out recently, we are not unique. The increase has been moderate and in line with many other EU member states.
This time last year, as the situation unfolded, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC), the organisation I lead, warned of an emerging dual standard in how Ireland was treating refugees from Ukraine, who have the benefit of the EU temporary protection directive , and people from other parts of the world who were seeking asylum here. This threat of a dual standard is in spite of the fact they are often escaping identical situations of war and persecution. Worryingly, that dual standard is now normalised.
While the legal footing is different, it is a set of policy choices that have created the dual standard for those coming from Ukraine and everyone else. There’s no legal reason why we can’t change our international protection system to look more like the temporary protection directive. Indeed, we at IHREC, and many voices which speak for international protection applicants, have been calling for this exact type of transformative change for many years.
Policy decisions can have insidious and unintended consequences, the impact of which will long outlast the State’s “emergency response” to a crisis. Already, the impression that some people seeking refuge are more equal than others is being exploited to create division and hate.
In a recent letter to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien and Minister for Integration Roderic O’Gorman, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, highlighted how this situation – occurring against the background of a broader housing crisis in Ireland – may contribute to emerging anti-refugee sentiment. The commissioner echoed the concerns we and others have over the disparity of treatment between those fleeing the war in Ukraine and seeking international protections from elsewhere.
Responsibility does not only lie with the State. As individuals, we must continue to examine our attitudes, assumptions and biases
So what is the answer? This is the moment to reimagine how we can best provide accommodation and support to those who arrive here seeking refuge. As a state and a society, we need to invest in an international protection system which is permanent, stable, future-proofed and designed for a world where flux and crisis are normal.
The term “international protection” refers to the international standards and agreements that have been put in place to defend the rights of those who have lost the protection of their own country. War can remove that protection, as can persecution of minority groups and, increasingly, the climate crisis. Ireland’s domestic system to defend those rights and provide the international protection that it has committed to should be a significant fixture within State infrastructure, with the necessary political commitment to support it.
As if to prove the case in point, the model of accommodation promised in the White Paper to End Direct Provision and to Establish a New International Protection Support Service has been rendered obsolete before implementation even began. This policy was based on a set of assumptions which are no longer valid. The current system of relying on direct provision contracts, bulk buying hotel rooms and, worse, forcing people to sleep on the streets, is broken.
The creation of a new model of international protection support needs to be treated with the same urgency and senior Government leadership as any of our core social services. It is an investment whose significance is far more than simply meeting our international legal obligations.
Predictability and stability are important for people seeking asylum here, but also for the communities which host them, which will be working alongside them, and welcoming them into schools, clubs and services.
As we’ve seen in recent protests against arriving international protection applicants, the absence of a stable, predictable system creates circumstances where misinformation and fear flourish. This has led to cruel and violent reactions against vulnerable refugees and those trying to protect them. Combating racism and promoting integration requires mobilisation and courage. It will take positive and practical action to avoid the toxic divisiveness which has infected politics in other European countries.
Responsibility does not only lie with the State. As individuals, we must continue to examine our attitudes, assumptions and biases. As communities, we must continue to extend our welcome to all people seeking refuge here. Our media must act responsibly in framing this complex topic and shaping a nuanced debate. Ultimately, we are all parts of a society that will be judged on how it treats its most vulnerable.
The time is running out to get this right. We will all pay the price for getting it wrong, and we will be on the wrong side of history.
Sinéad Gibney is chief commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission